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Schmooze Control

Enterprise -- Marketing: Connections

Schmooze Control

Need to network? Here's how to find the right group

Don't look for Gerald Reaster at the local Chamber of Commerce meeting. It's not cutting-edge enough for this 58-year-old retired Navy officer, who runs a four-year-old Web design firm called Tink's Web Pages from his home in Escondido, Calif. The chapter resisted using E-mail to communicate with members and recently canceled many of its events for home-based businesses.

Instead, Reaster prefers the weekly meetings of the North County Business Exchange (NCBE), one of a new breed of networking groups, which has about 20 members. "The small-business groups are where it's at," he says. "I've gotten more business and referrals there, and we share more information."

Hundreds of smaller and more intimate networking groups like NCBE have sprung up over the past decade, following the rising tide of entrepreneurship. Well-established national networking groups, which set up small local chapters for small businesses, are growing, too. Founder Ivan Misner says Business Network International, a 14-year-old San Dimas (Calif.)-based organization with some 1,200 chapters, opened more chapters in the first 10 months of last year than it did in its first 10 years. His group lets business owners exchange sales leads and other information.

Of course, large groups like industry trade associations or the Chamber of Commerce can still fit into your networking strategy. But some entrepreneurs complain these organizations focus more on political lobbying and the needs of larger companies. Moreover, it's tough for most entrepreneurs to make successful connections at these large groups, which tend to have high turnover from meeting to meeting. That makes it hard to form a true bond with a particular person. "It takes six conversations to really make a contact," says Lynne Waymon, a networking expert and co-founder of training firm Waymon & Associates, based in Silver Spring, Md.

Smaller groups, including niche-oriented ones that target a particular demographic or industry, are more conducive to forging strong ties. You can also have a greater say in setting the agenda. Sales leads tend to be more productive, too.CLOSE AND PERSONAL. Attorney David McDowell, for example, belongs to several organizations, including Le Tip International, which franchises sales referral groups around the country. But he's most loyal to the Community Business Network, a group for gay and gay-friendly businesses in Southern California. "If I go to a meeting at the Chamber or Le Tip, nobody hugs anyone," says McDowell. In contrast, one client referred to him by a CBN member drove two hours out of his way to McDowell's Laguna Beach law firm, Ellsworth & McDowell.

Although many owners use networking groups to market their goods or services, direct pitches are often taboo with the new breed. Bruce Stout got so tired of being bombarded at networking clubs that he started his own, The Rainmakers' Forum, in New York City in 1997. The group, which now has nine chapters, helps members exchange information and resources, not sales leads. "Networking is not about trying to get leads, but about getting to know who I am," he says.

The seminars and forums these groups offer can be as useful as the contacts. Doryne Valentine joined the Austin (Tex.)-based Entrepreneur's Assn., which focuses on very small service companies, before buying her Parcel Plus Inc. shipping franchise in June, 1996. Valentine learned entrepreneurial basics in the group's Street MBA program. She then pitched her business plan at their semiannual Show Me The Money conference and raised $45,000.

A small, intimate networking club can also function as a support group. For example, Carey Earle, an Internet consultant in Manhattan for the biggest corporations, belongs to several networking groups, but she recently started hosting monthly gatherings at her home to discuss lifestyle issues that she wouldn't normally bring up with clients.

How do you choose a group that will work for you? First, decide what your goals are. "Think through who you need to build your business and where they're going to be," says Marjorie Brody, networking expert and author. Talk to other entrepreneurs and search the Net. Then weigh whether the benefits will justify the sometimes steep up-front cost. Stout purposely set the annual fee for The Rainmakers' Forum at a relatively high $2,250 to "rule out the wannabes." Others just ask members to chip in for breakfast.

If a group seems to meet your needs, ask to sit in on a meeting or two. "Some people like groups that are loose, while others like structure and feel a kaffeeklatsch is a waste of time," notes Nancy Roebke, whose five-year-old networking organization, Profnet, has 30 chapters on the Eastern seaboard.

Talk to members and leaders. "Make sure they're people you like," recommends Jan Triplett, co-director of the Entrepreneurs Assn., "because you can't network without bonding."BY INVITATION ONLY. No single group is likely to meet all of your networking needs. Alan Adams, founder of Adams Translation Services in Austin, belongs to Triplett's group as well as The Alternative Board, a Denver-based organization that creates small, invitation-only chapters of CEOs at similar-size companies. Adams often taps the local group for help with personnel issues but turns to the more high-powered CEOs at The Alternative Board for advice on corporate matters.

If you can't find the right group, then start your own, says networking expert Waymon: "That way, you can choose who gets in." Bruce Stout starts each new chapter of The Rainmakers' Forum by gathering together three or four well-connected business people who provide the first generation of members. "My suggestion is to make strong relationships with 5 to 10 people," he says. "It's in-depth relationships that really create business." That just confirms what you always suspected: Smaller is often better.By Edith Updike in New YorkReturn to top

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